REVIEW: Warhorse, New London Theatre

Paul Gustafson February 17, 2016

Last month, an exciting announcement was made that in January 2018 the National Theatre production of Warhorse is coming to the Brighton Centre for a two week run – part of a prestigious tour of just seven UK cities.


The arrival of this iconic, multi-award winning production is a major coup for Brighton Centre and for the city. Warhorse premiered in London in 2007, and by the time it finishes its current run at the New London Theatre on March 12 it’s estimated that 2.7 million people will have seen the show in the capital, with over seven million people seeing Warhorse worldwide.

So what’s all the fuss about?  I took the train up to London last week to see for myself.

This is a compelling theatrical experience from the moment the curtain rises and we get our first glimpse of the mesmerising puppetry which is at the heart of the play.  In a beautiful, pastoral tableau, a young foal frolics in a summer field as swallows swoop and sing and the sun shines down. It’s a brief, wordless scene filled with nostalgia and innocence, and a world away from the drama, horror and destruction which is to follow.

The foal is bought by a local farmer on a drunken whim. Joey, as he is named, is entrusted to the farmer’s young son, Albert, to be raised as a working farm horse and sold for profit further down the line. Albert and Joey, two innocents, immediately form a bond, and the rest of the play follows their story as they are separately drawn into the epic conflict of the First World War, with Joey first sold to the yeomanry cavalry and shipped abroad, and Albert, underage, enlisting shortly after in a quest to be reunited with his horse.

The first time we see the adult Joey on stage, he has grown into a magnificent, noble beast, and though he has a wooden like skeleton and translucent skin, through which we can see three skilled puppeteers at work, the effect is more than just stylised and impressionistic – it’s incredibly lifelike as well as utterly captivating, moving, and at times even breath-taking.

As the story unfolds it’s largely told through the eyes of Joey. It’s a device for communicating a powerful message about the loss and futility of the Great War, and indeed any war, in a way that isn’t partisan or judgemental. Joey is forced to fight for both sides, and is befriended and loved by people on both sides, before eventually ending up stranded, literally, in no-man’s land.

Another great strength of this production is its innovative, unfussy, multi-media staging, with Rae Smith’s brilliant design and Paule Constable’s wonderful use of lighting seamlessly transitioning scenes from bucolic pastures to terrifying battlefields.  They are supported by a fine score, with John Tam’s wistful folk songs introducing and linking the narrative, and Adrian Sutton’s orchestral backing track, full of power and emotion, highlighting the drama.

The large cast of over thirty company members gives a solid, honest supporting performance. This is a family play based on a children’s book, and as such the human characters are to some extent drawn quite one-dimensionally. They are essentially providing a narrative for Joey’s journey and fate, though ultimately their interaction with the horse is also the thing that makes them appear more human. It’s something the play asks us to learn from, whatever our age.

Warhorse, Brighton Centre, January 25 to February 10 2018.

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